Field Notes 17

Pacific Northwest BY THOMAS HOBBS / Vancouver, British Columbia, Zone 8

Abutilons Outdoors

THE HEADLINES are correct—global warming has arrived. One effect of this has been that the abutilons I used to dig up every October and bring into my heated greenhouse are now permanent seven-foot outdoor shrubs. About three years ago, I left three or four varieties out over the winter to see how they would do. Many, especially the smaller-flowered varieties, pulled through admirably, surviving 0°F in my garden and resprouting from the base with amazing vigor.

One of these was ‘Melon Delight’–a must-have abutilon with fairly narrow, shuttlecock flowers of a uniform shade of light orange. It displays its bells from June until December, when cold weather (in the low 20s Farenheit) causes all of its leaves to drop. The woody, twiggy branches are still completely alive, however, and should not be pruned until spring. ‘Linda Vista Peach’ is an evergreen variety that survived, as well. It is my biggest plant now, forming a thicket of branches I let dangle over my hot tub, its large, flared flowers with contrasting reddish yellow stamens blooming year round. Even my namesake abutilon, ‘Thomas Hobbs’, has proven to be hardy. During the summer, I notice that the more sun it gets, the richer hues the flowers assume. They darken to an attractive shade of tan, while shade-grown plants have paler, parchment-colored flowers.

Once abutilons become permanent in the garden, more thought needs to be given to the plants that surround them. Years ago, a visit to San Francisco gardener Sonny Garcia’s exotic wonderland showed me how abutilons can mingle well with other plantings. In my garden, their open, nonclobbering habit makes them perfect companions for nearby tree peonies, whose show is over by late May. I grow abutilon ‘Huntington Pink’ (pictured) against a shady wall, where it arches over a garden gate. At its feet I have planted the fluffy Stipa arundinacea as an anchor. Sonny also introduced me to ‘Babycakes’, an abutilon with large, flared-skirt flowers of soft pink.

“Hardy” abutilons represent an untapped source of summer beauty, and gardeners in even colder climates than my USDA Zone 8 should try experimenting with them. Even just a winter mulching might be enough to pull them through a Zone 6 winter. The top growth will surely be dead, but the plants will emerge as a thicket of twiggy shoots once warm weather arrives. Smart gardeners, though, always take “insurance cuttings” on risky winter experiments, and grow on a few as indoor plants. Finding out if these lovely plants will perennialize in your area is certainly worth a try, especially if the possibility of a whole new genus of hardy shrubs is the payoff. H

To do in the garden

  • Look for seeds worth saving. Be vigilant with Cerinthe major Purpurascens’, which drops its seeds fairly early in the season. Collect seed from nicotianas you liked this year. Always save N. langsdorffii and N. sylvestris seed.

  • Remove most seedheads from over-enthusiastic self-sowers like Onopordum acanthium and verbascums. The neighborhood will thank you!

  • Check your South African bulbs and see how their summer bake is doing. Nerines, amaryllis, sprekelias and such should be dormant but happy, their pots out in the sun and on the dry side. Increase watering as new shoots show.

  • Stop fertilizing potted annuals and let them coast for the rest of the season, but keep watering and deadheading. When they’ve gone by, replant pots with your fall favorites.

Worth growing

Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’

Somewhat tender (too wonderful to risk, even in Zone 8) bulbs that burst their pots with three-foot rosettes of truly purple straplike leaves. By June, a four-foot tower of claret and green flowers emerges from the center and is crowned with the classic pineapple top, also purplish. I also save all the seed (there is a lot!) and grow a batch each year; they reach blooming size in two years. Save the bulbs over winter as you would with amaryllis, dried off and resting in the dark. Restart them in a windowsill in April and give lots of water, sun, and rich soil. Sources, page 74.

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